The New York Times
Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Meby Craig Seligman
In this witty, erudite, and stylish study of two of the twentieth century's most influential cultural critics, Craig Seligman penned the sleeper success of last year. Not a dry ponderous "think piece," but a lively, highly readable examination of the work of both Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael, this walloping literary dust-up sizes up two writers who couldn't be more… See more details below
In this witty, erudite, and stylish study of two of the twentieth century's most influential cultural critics, Craig Seligman penned the sleeper success of last year. Not a dry ponderous "think piece," but a lively, highly readable examination of the work of both Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael, this walloping literary dust-up sizes up two writers who couldn't be more different in their style and approach.
Though outwardly Sontag and Kael had things in common-they were both Westerners who came east, both schooled in philosophy, both secular Jews, and both single mothers-they were polar opposites in temperament. Seligman approaches both women through their widely discussed work. Kael practiced a kind of verbal jazz, exuberant, excessive, intimate, emotional, and funny. Sontag is formal and rather icy. Moral questions obsess Sontag; they interested Kael but didn't trouble her. Then there's the matter of self-revelation. Under Sontag's aloofness smolders an impulse toward autobiography so strong it can be called confessional. Kael seems to be terribly forthcoming, and yet she turns out, when you peer more closely, to be surprisingly guarded.
Seligman considers both writers magnificent, and his exploration of their differences results in this luminously written landmark of criticism. In seeking to understand these two dissimilar icons, Seligman performs an unusual and remarkable feat: he confronts criticism as an art in itself. "While it is hard enough to find a good book of criticism, to find a good book of criticism about criticism is nearly impossible. Yet Craig Seligman's Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me is just that." (Variety)
Author Biography: Craig Seligman was born in Louisiana and educated at Stanford and Oxford. He has been an editor at The New Yorker, Food & Wine, and Salon.com. He's written criticism for a wide variety of publications, including the San Francisco Examiner (where he was a staff film and book critic in the 1980s), The New Yorker, Salon, The New Republic, the Threepenny Review, the Village Voice, Artforum, Bookforum, and the New York Times Book Review (where he remains a frequent contributor). He lives in Brooklyn, New York with his partner, Silvana Nova.
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Sontag & KaelOpposites Attract Me
By Craig Seligman
COUNTERPOINTCopyright © 2004 Craig Seligman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI didn't want to write a book with a hero and a villain, but Sontag kept making it hard for me. She is not a likable writer-but then she doesn't intend to be. She's elitist and condescending toward those less informed than she is (i.e., everybody) and gratingly unapologetic about it. Intimidation, which I'll grant is an indispensable critical weapon, she uses remorselessly. So does Kael. The difference is that Sontag uses it charmlessly-but then she doesn't intend to be charming. (Charm, she almost seems to feel, is for pipsqueaks.) All that erudition impresses me, though there's a big difference, as anyone who's hung out with academics can tell you, between erudition and insight, erudition and taste. But my quarrel with Sontag isn't about her generally impeccable taste, and you would have to be crazy to say she lacks insight-her criticism is brilliant. I'm getting off on the wrong foot by even using the phrase "my quarrel with Sontag." She is a critic I revere, a magnificent critic. When I complain about her, you should keep in mind the caveat Nietzsche proffered once at the end of a (much more bitter) attack on Wagner: "When I use harsh words against the cretinism of Bayreuth, the last thing I want to do is start a celebration for any other musicians. Other musicians don't count compared to Wagner." Obviously I can't be that categorical, since for me there is one critic who counts compared to Sontag, and though my aim in putting them side by side is to illuminate the work of each, honesty and ethics command me to admit right here what will be obvious anyway, which is that I don't feel the same way about them. I revere Sontag. I love Kael.
Loved. I met her when I was a young man just out of college who knew her work practically by heart; she was near sixty, and over the twenty-three years she had left, we became close friends. I've avoided meeting Sontag, though I've had the opportunity more than once. Her voice doesn't draw me as Kael's voice did; in fact it frequently puts me off. In my scale of enthusiasms, Kael's humanity and her virtuosity trump Sontag's loftiness, and it's a constant temptation to use Kael as a cudgel to bonk the smirk of self-esteem off Sontag's face with. I hope I can avoid it. It isn't useful, and it isn't-to use an unfashionable term that never fell out of fashion with either of them-honorable. What one achieved doesn't diminish the other's accomplishment. When in this book I place Sontag and Kael next to each other as perfect foils in their approaches, their purposes, and their personalities, the last thing I want to imply is that I'm running a contest. One of the pleasures of being in my position is that I don't have to choose.
A few fundamental parallels sharpen their differences that much more. Both were Westerners who came east, a provenance that shaped Kael more than it did Sontag, since Kael began her career in the Bay Area and wrote for years as an establishment outsider; Sontag was younger and far less formed when she left the West. Both concentrated in philosophy, a background that didn't hurt either one's powers of argument; Sontag's career owes more (or at least owes it more visibly) to her formal education, in that she writes with a less seat-of-the-pants, more philosophical bent. Both were secular (very secular) Jews, heirs to an intellectual intensity that has gotten deflected, in the case of so many modern thinkers, from sacred works to cultural ones; both exemplify what Sontag sometimes calls Jewish moral seriousness. (Kael would have hated the phrase, but she wouldn't have disputed it.) Both were single mothers, and there's nothing like the need to support a child, as Kael once said, to jump-start one's ambition. A final parallel they share only with each other. Though they barely knew each other, they were the two most widely discussed and influential critics in the United States from the amazing era of cultural and political exuberance in the 1960s to the era of ossification that set in during the 1980s. After that, Kael stopped writing and Sontag shifted most of her attention to her fiction.
I'm using critic here to mean "commentator on art." Sontag objects to the term and doesn't consider herself a critic in the sense of "evaluator of art," since she generally avoids taking on work she dislikes. This is one of their major differences. Kael was happy in the role of evaluator, and evaluation is how she gets to insight. She never lost her excitement about the this-weekness of this week's movie, and while it may provide some enlightenment about last week's movie or next week's movie, this week's movie-the work at hand-is what she's there for. For Sontag, the work at hand (which is nearly always a great or important one-the evaluating is finished before she sits down to write) is a stepping stone: she's eyeing bigger fish, using individual works to reach larger conclusions. Kael is a reviewer down to her toes; her responses are specific. Sontag is an aesthetic theorist, if not always a systematic one.
You can see the contrast easily in their approaches to the chestnut about what's appropriate to theater and what's appropriate to film. Kael is a pragmatist, and the question of domain doesn't interest her much: "Filmed plays," she writes, "are often denigrated, somewhat dishonestly, by people who learn a little cant about what is said to be proper to the film medium and forget about the pleasure they've been getting from filmed plays all their lives." She deals with the issue brusquely, impatient to move on, in her 1962 "Is There a Cure for Film Criticism?" an evisceration of Siegfried Kracauer's Theory of Film that is also one of her funniest attacks on theory in general. The whole debate about domains strikes her as misguided, since "what motion picture art shares with other arts is perhaps even more important than what it may, or may not, have exclusively." Responding to Kracauer's notions about what is "genuinely cinematic" (big objects, for example), she snaps, "Who cares whether the objects on the screen are accessible or inaccessible to the stage, or, for that matter, to painting, or to the novel or poetry? Who started this divide and conquer game of aesthetics in which the different media are assigned their special domains like salesmen staking out their territories-you stick to the Midwest and I'll take Florida?"
"Who cares?" may be a rhetorical question, but in this case it's one with an answer: aesthetic theorists-specifically, Sontag, who devoted a substantial essay to the subject in 1966. Sontag's own views aren't any more prescriptive than Kael's ("there is no reason to insist on a single model for film ... it is no more part of the putative 'essence' of movies that the camera must rove over a large physical area than it is that the sound element in a film must always be subordinate to the visual"), yet the question "What is the difference between theater and film?" so needles her that she has to spend twenty-three pages worrying it out-doggedly, cogently, and, whatever Kael might think of the effort, fascinatingly. Kael is down-to-earth, and she likes it there. Sontag heads off on a quest in the other direction, with an impulse that borders on the religious, she's searching for truth.
Consider their use of a single word, serious (and its derivatives seriousness, seriously). In 1988 Sontag told an interviewer, "Sometimes I feel that, in the end, all I am really defending-but then I say all is everything-is the idea of seriousness, of true seriousness." She has no higher term of praise. It encapsulates everything that most affects her in art and in thought, and it recurs in her writing over and over: "No one who loves life would wish to imitate her dedication to martyrdom.... Yet so far as we love seriousness, as well as life, we are moved by it, nourished by it" ("Simone Weil," 1963). "Still another use for silence: furnishing or aiding speech to attain its maximum integrity or seriousness" ("The Aesthetics of Silence," 1967). "Artaud changed the understanding of what was serious, what was worth doing" ("Approaching Artaud," 1973). "When I denounced ... certain kinds of facile moralism, it was in the name of a more alert, less complacent seriousness. What I didn't understand ... was that seriousness itself was in the early stages of losing credibility in the culture at large. ... Thirty years later, the undermining of standards of seriousness is almost complete" ("Thirty Years Later ...," 1996). As Lionel Trilling observed of the Princess Casamassima, "Seriousness has become her ruling passion." (And, as he added, it's also "her fatal sin, for seriousness is not exempt from the tendency of ruling passions to lead to error.")
Kael is no foe of the serious, but you wouldn't know it from her vocabulary. Seldom does she use the word any way but ironically, as a term of derision-not serious but "serious." "I couldn't persuade friends to go see Charade.... The word had got around that it isn't important, that it isn't serious." "Faces has the kind of seriousness that a serious artist couldn't take seriously." Of Jack Nicholson: "When he tried to give a quiet performance in The King of Marvin Gardens, he was so self-effacingly serious that he was a dead spot on the screen." Of The Hindenburg: "[Robert] Wise brings all his flatulent seriousness to this endeavor. One gasbag meets another." An emblematic usage occurs in one of her earliest essays, the 1956 "Movies, the Desperate Art": "Representations of Americans in foreign films always feel wrong to an American audience. It is true we are shallow, but we are not carefree and irresponsible, we are shallowly serious." And solemn, which Sontag uses as a commendation ("the Great Work ... proposes satisfactions that are immense, solemn, and restricting"), on Kael's tongue becomes a withering insult.
Or take vulgar and its derivatives. Sontag uses the word as you'd expect her to, pejoratively. "I do find much promise in the activities of young people.... And I include, not least of all, their interest in taking drugs-despite the unspeakable vulgarization of this project by Leary and others," she wrote in "What's Happening in America (1966)." (A special-case exception occurs in "Notes on 'Camp'": "The new-style dandy, the lover of Camp, appreciates vulgarity.") To the extent that vulgarity is the opposite of self-seriousness, Kael is willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. "How can you embrace life," she demands of Woody Allen's somber Another Woman, "and leave out all the good vulgar trashiness?" "There's no vulgar life in Silkwood," she complains. And: "Vulgarity is not as destructive to an artist as snobbery, and in the world of movies vulgar strength has been a great redemptive force, canceling out niggling questions of taste."
Kael might have been talking about Sontag when she wrote, "I don't trust critics who say they care only for the highest and the best; it's an inhuman position, and I don't believe them." Her own appetite for what she called trash was, according to her, half of what made her (and makes each one of us) a critic. "I think the sense of feeling qualified to praise and complain in the same breath is part of our feeling that movies belong to us," she wrote. "Going to the movies was more satisfying than what the schools had taught us was art. We responded totally-which often meant contemptuously, wanting more, wanting movies to be better." Next to Kael's catholicity, Sontag's high-mindedness-her horror of the vulgar and the low-makes her look thin-skinned and finicky, a kind of modernist Margaret Dumont.
That's a little unfair to Sontag (and to Margaret Dumont), since the truth is that Kael is just as fixed on standards as Sontag is. Both are, preeminently, lovers of literature whose enthusiasm for cinema-a secondary enthusiasm, they both avow (Kael more insistently, as a matter of fact)-left them feeling seduced and abandoned as the art collapsed late in the century. True, Kael enjoyed trash, and enjoyed saying she enjoyed it, but she also fiercely upheld the distinction between trash and art. (This was one of her beefs with the auteurists: "How can they, with straight faces, probe for deep meanings in these products? Even the kids they're made for know enough not to take them seriously.") Sontag generally avoids having to make the distinction at all by restricting her writing (especially after Against Interpretation) to art she esteems; for her, what she esteems and what's great are one and the same. From all the evidence, she abhors trash (though she seems to have sat through a lot of it at the movies). The upshot is such a puritanical view of art-"I'm an incorrigible puritan," she freely admits-that for years it overshadowed her commitment to pleasure.
Would she have found Kael vulgar? It's hard to imagine her surrendering herself to Kael's style, which is everything hers isn't-exuberant, excessive, intimate, emotional, and, of course, funny. (According to Leland Poague and Kathy A. Parsons's Susan Sontag: An Annotated Bibliography, 1948-1992, though, she did once express admiration for Kael's criticism, in a 1980 interview with a Polish periodical.) Sontag's own critical style is such a model of detachment that at its most extreme it can suggest intelligence uninflected by personality. Something has been left out of these essays, you may feel; something's missing. And it's true, something is: the phenomenal world, the world that bursts forth in all its "good vulgar trashiness" in Kael's criticism-Sontag has saved it for her fiction. Film, though, wallows in the phenomenal world; it's a journalistic medium by nature. Not even the most world-embracing art-not even Shakespeare-can give you the vista of the world that you get through a movie (though obviously it can give you something more). This journalistic side was fuel for Kael. Movies, she was fond of pointing out, show us how we live our lives and, by providing models of behavior (social, professional, erotic), how to live our lives. "And if it be said that this is sociology, not aesthetics," she wrote early on, "the answer is that an aesthetician who gave his time to criticism of current movies would have to be an awful fool." Ideas alone weren't enough for her. Critical prose can't survive on ideas alone. It needs something more to give it traction (or to give you traction), some poetry or some journalistic observation or at least some humor. Otherwise it dries out and turns into scholarship-which is fine and useful in its own right, but it doesn't reward the general reader. (Insofar as it does, it's something more than scholarship.)
Fortunately, Sontag provides it. Her meticulously worked sentences give off a soft glow.
Excerpted from Sontag & Kael by Craig Seligman Copyright © 2004 by Craig Seligman. Excerpted by permission.
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